How to Demonstrate That Your Car Is a Lemon

Lemon laws are designed to protect the owner of a defective car if (1) the car is covered by a warranty, (2) a substantial defect occurs within a certain period of time after the purchase, and (3) the defect cannot be corrected after multiple repair attempts. If you suspect that you purchased a car that falls under the category of a "lemon" and you’d like to receive compensation, you’ll need to provide evidence of a substantial defect in accordance with the lemon laws in your state.

It is important to keep in mind that blanket lemon laws don’t actually exist. This means, each state has its own take on issues such as what qualifies as a lemon, what’s considered a substantial defect, and which cars are covered under lemon laws. For example, in the state of New York, both new and used cars are covered under the state’s lemon laws only if the vehicle meets certain requirements such as “the car must be used primarily for personal purposes.” In other states, like Florida, lemon laws cover only new and demonstrator vehicles. Demonstrator vehicles or “demo” vehicles are cars that were driven by dealership salespersons or managers, but are still legally new.  

How to Determine What Qualifies as a Substantial Defect 

In general, a substantial defect typically includes any problem that has an impact on a car’s use, value, or safety, and in particular when the defect is considered a serious safety defect that is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if the vehicle is driven. Examples of substantial defects include faulty brakes, faulty steering, absence of or broken seatbelts, gas leaks, or a cracked windshield.

Cosmetic or minor issues, like a loose knob on the radio control panel or a small tear in the upholstery, are not addressed by lemon law because such issues do not affect the safety and function of the car. However, whether a specific problem is minor or substantial is not clearly defined in general. Again, lemon laws vary (sometimes greatly) from state to state. Investigate your state’s lemon laws before you dismiss a problem as minor or assume you will not be covered. You can begin your investigation with the Better Business Bureau (BBB.org), where state-by-state lemon laws have been summarized in layman’s terms, or click here for more information on lemon laws in various states.

If You Determine Your Car Has a Substantial Defect

If your car’s problem is considered a substantial defect under your state lemon laws, the car dealer or manufacturer usually has the right to attempt to correct the defect. The number of repair attempts the dealer or manufacturer can make will depend on the lemon laws in your state. For example, in Alabama, the manufacturer, its agent or authorized dealer has a cumulative total of 30 days to correct the defect or three or more opportunities. One or two repair attempts is unacceptable in this state. In the state of Wisconsin, on the other hand, the manufacturer, its agent or authorized dealer has up to four opportunities to correct any problem deemed a substantial defect under Wisconsin lemon laws. Many states also have provisions in their lemon laws stating that if a car is in the shop for repairs for a certain number of days per year, the car may be considered a lemon.

Moving Forward: Obtaining Protections under State Lemon Law

Once it is determined that your car has a substantial defect and the car manufacturer has been given the minimum number of opportunities to fix the problem, your car is generally considered a lemon—if the problem still exists. However, in order to benefit from lemon law protections, you must show that the defect is not a result of your misuse of the car.

Be sure to properly maintain your car and change the oil on a regular basis. Also, organize and make copies of all maintenance and repair records to document all of the problems the car has had. Be ready to prove that you took care of the car and that you are not negligent in any way. You should also be ready to show that the dealer and car manufacturer were given the appropriate number of opportunities to repair the defect, as outlined in your specific state lemon laws.